At last, fast-talking Al gets it all off his chest

Sketch - Andrew Gumbel
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The Independent US

Al Gore should have been thrilled. The crowd was loving him. Lapping up his every word, chanting "Go, Al, go!". Loving him at this crucial, climactic moment of his coronation as the Democrats' presidential candidate.

Al Gore should have been thrilled. The crowd was loving him. Lapping up his every word, chanting "Go, Al, go!". Loving him at this crucial, climactic moment of his coronation as the Democrats' presidential candidate.

But Al wasn't thrilled. He smiled awkwardly, yanked his chin back, and waited for the commotion to die down. Hey, said his body language, I've got a speech to deliver.

Once he tried to silence the convention hall, then twice. To no avail. And then he uttered the most telling line of the night: the only one, in fact, that wasn't scripted and honed. Leaning into the microphone, he asked, like a teacher testily trying to bring his class to order: "Are you with me?"

He meant, are you going to carry on listening to me? But he could just as easily have asked if his audience was with him any other way - politically, morally, humanly. Because, as he delivered his keynote acceptance speech, the country wasn't at all sure. Even his own party wasn't sure.

Here he was, setting the place alight like he set out to do and he couldn't even enjoy the moment. No wonder Mr Gore is a tricky person to warm to.

This was his big opportunity to prove he was a sentient human being, not just a brain on a stick; that he could fire up his supporters, not just bore them with statistics; that he could finally say what he meant and mean what he said.

It would be churlish to suggest the Democrats had been over-confident about his chances. Half an hour before he spoke, the atmosphere on the floor was flat as a pancake. Dead. One of Mr Gore's younger daughters, Kristen, came on stage, tried to crack a joke, failed, tittered nervously.

"Oh no," you could read on the delegates' faces, "this is going to be a disaster; why oh why have we lumbered ourselves with another of these unelectable bores..."

But then came Tipper. Bright, breezy and confident, the Brain's wife charmed the crowd then gave them a slide show of family portraits.

Finally, with the crowd in much better humour, he arrived. Suit sharp, face all smiles, hair carefully slicked. Looking determined, confident, focused, like a runner warming up for a middle-distance race. The crowd went wild.

Then he started. Slowly at first. Then a little faster and a little faster and a little faster until suddenly you weren't sure if he was running for president or running for a train. Admittedly, this was the part about the past eight years, a period seemingly off-limits for the night. He was his own man, he said, at last pausing for breath. Bill Clinton merited one damply delivered compliment, no more.

Mr Gore did slow down but not much. He charged his way through every round of applause like a bull hurtling around a bull ring. He declared himself a man of the people but did not wait to give some of his more elegantly crafted rhetoric time to sink in.

He introduced a selection of hand-picked "ordinary" Americans and told their stories but did not lift his eyes long enough to make eye contact.

The overall effect wasn't bad, though. His speech was long on substance and hit the right notes with several key constituencies - the campaign finance reformers, the unions, the environmentalists, the teachers, the African-Americans. Mr Gore made a compelling case for his passion about policy, even if the only true human passion he displayed was when talking about his late father, Albert Sr.

No matter. If tears were needed, they were supplied by his 85-year-old mother. If enthusiasm was required, the floor had plenty of it. Mr Gore might not have been perfect, but he more than passed the test. He set out a full agenda. He embarrassed nobody. Asthe music died and the delegates shuffled out, you could read the same line etched on scores of their relieved faces: Thank God for that.

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